Saturday, February 13, 2010

Belief in God as Wish Fulfillment

I picked up Chet Raymo's Skeptics and True Believers at the used book store today for a couple of bucks.

In the Introduction, Raymo divides the world into Skeptics and True Believers (no points for guessing which category Raymo prefers). Here is what he says about the forces pushing one to be a True Believer:

"The forces that nudge us toward True Belief are pervasive and well-nigh irresistible. Supernatural faith systems provide a degree of emotional security that skepticism cannot provide. Who among us would not prefer to believe that there exists a divine parent who has our best interest at heart? Who among us would not prefer to believe that we will live forever? Skepticism, on the other hand, offers only uncertainty and doubt. What keeps scientific skepticism on track, against the individual's need for emotional security, is a highly evolved social structure, including professional associations and university departments, peer-reviewed literature, meetings and conferences, and a language that relies heavily on mathematics and specialized nomenclature."

Raymo intends the questions in the middle of the paragraph to be rhetorical, but he doesn't seem to see that the questions cut both ways. A "divine parent" who has our best interests at heart, is also a divine parent who judges us and places demands on us. Anyone who prefers not to have his "freedom" restricted by Commandments or requirements to go to Mass and Confession, is someone who prefers not to have a divine parent. Who among us would prefer to have a divine parent judging us and demanding we obey his Commandments?

As far as immortal life, who would prefer to live forever if that life is damned to Hell? That's the downside to immortality; our actions in this life determine our eternal destiny, and that destiny is forever. Kierkegaard brilliantly (and horrifyingly) probes the psychology of eternal despair in The Sickness Unto Death. The soul in despair wants to die, but cannot. Who would prefer to believe that our deeds haunt us into eternity?

I see the "wish fulfillment" argument as a wash when it comes to God. Every theistic wish that might be fulfilled by the existence of God (the comfort of a divine parent looking out for us), has a parallel atheistic wish (the non-existence of God leaves me free to indulge my desires without guilt or fear of divine wrath.) The desire for immortal life is countered by the fear that it might mean having to endure the unendurable. The desire to believe in a guardian angel is countered by the desire to believe that evil spirits bent on our destruction are but a myth, etc.

I've always found the wish-fulfillment argument a non-sequiter in any case, since just because something fulfills a wish doesn't mean it isn't true. Sometimes your fondest wishes do come true.

Who would not prefer to believe that?

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